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Could your sense of responsibility lead to anxiety or even obsessive compulsive disorder? People who are too harsh on themselves could be at increased risk of OCD and anxiety, research shows.

An international study found people who reported intense feelings of responsibility were susceptible to developing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

Anxiety and OCD-like behaviours, such as checking if the door is locked are common in the general population. However it is the frequency and intensity of these behaviours or feelings that make the difference between a character trait and disorder, according to the researchers.

“People with OCD are tortured by repeatedly occurring negative thinking and they take some strategy to prevent it…GAD is a very pervasive type of anxiety. Patients worry about everything,” University of Hiroshima’s Associate Professor Yoshinori Sugiura said.

Professor Sugiura and Associate Professor Brian Fisak of the University of Central Florida, explored the theory of ‘inflated responsibility’ as a cause for the disorders. They combined tests used to study OCD and GAD as there had been no previous work that compared these tests in the same study.

The team identified three types of inflated responsibility:

  • the responsibility to prevent or avoid danger and/or harm;
  • sense of personal responsibility and blame for negative outcomes; and
  • responsibility to continue thinking about a problem.

An online questionnaire was sent to study participants to determine whether inflated responsibility was a predictor of OCD or GAD. The survey found that respondents who scored higher in questions about responsibility were more likely to exhibit behaviours that resembled those of OCD or GAD patients. Personal responsibility and blame and the responsibility to continue thinking had the strongest link to the disorders.

The researchers are looking into how to reduce responsibility. There were ways to reduce anxiety or obsessive behaviours, Professor Suguira said.

“A very quick or easy way is to realise that responsibility is working behind your worry. I ask [patients] ‘Why are you worried so much?’ so they will answer ‘I can’t help but worry’ but they will not spontaneously think ‘Because I feel responsibility’…just realising it will make some space between responsibility thinking and your behaviour.”

The research was published in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy.